Raleigh, N.C. — Officials with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources played defense during an hour-long news conference Wednesday, rebutting suggestions that the agency has gone easy on Duke Energy over the operation of coal ash ponds at its power plants, including one that recently spilled into the Dan River.
The news conference came two hours after WRAL News learned that a federal grand jury investigating the Feb. 2 ash spill near Eden was expanding its probe, issuing subpoenas to DENR and Duke regarding the utility's other ash ponds in North Carolina and regarding any ties between DENR officials and Duke.
DENR Secretary John Skvarla chided reporters for their portrayal of the agency in recent weeks, saying he and his staff are trying to work with environmental advocates to clean up the ash ponds and aren't trying to impede the effort.
"Somehow or another, the perception has been created that we are adversaries to the citizens groups when, in fact, we are all on the same side of the table. We are partners. We all have the same outcome in mind," he said.
DENR filed suit against Duke last year over its ash ponds, but environmental groups contend that the state took action only after the groups tried to take their own legal action against the utility.
Skvarla said his agency took action shortly after he was appointed in January 2013. "There was no hesitation. There was no scintilla of a doubt what we would do," he said.
He also criticized reports of DENR's negotiated settlement with Duke over two leaky ash ponds. Environmental advocates have called it a sweetheart deal for Duke, saying the proposed $99,000 fine is pocket change to the nation's largest electric utility, and the settlement still doesn't remove the potential danger of the ash ponds.
"Our goal is to clean up coal ash. Our goal is to protect the environment," he said. "Any allegation that DENR and Duke got together and made some smoky back-room deal with a nominal fine is just absolutely not true."
Skvarla said the settlement would allow the state to bypass years of litigation with Duke and require the utility to monitor the ash ponds while devising a clean-up plan. He added that the fine is five times higher than any other environmental penalty imposed in North Carolina.
The demand of environmentalists that Duke dig up and move its coal ash to safer locations is too extreme, he said.
"We're talking 14 facilities and 32 coal ash ponds. I can assure you, it's not that simple," he said.
Regulators confirmed that they've known for years that toxins from the coal ash are seeping into groundwater and leaking from the dams that contain the ash ponds, violating state law at all 14 sites. Although DENR could force Duke to stop the pollution and clean it up, state water quality chief Tom Reeder said the agency hasn't.
"We're still assessing the situation. I mean, if we really want to do that, I guess we could do that," Reeder said.
DENR hasn't enforced state laws, he said, because the pollution wasn't doing serious environmental harm. Two neighborhoods, in Asheville and Wilmington, had to have water piped in because their wells were contaminated by coal ash ponds.
Reeder said DENR is handling the Duke ash ponds the same way it does any other threat to groundwater and drinking water supplies. Regulations call for making assessments and weighing options before implementing a remediation plan, he said.
After the Dan River spill, DENR asked a federal judge to hold off approving the settlement. Officials denied there was any connection between stalling the settlement and the federal investigation of the spill, saying they didn't know about the subpoenas when they made the request.
Skvarla declined to answer questions about the subpoenas.
DENR officials said they routinely inspection the ash pond dams to ensure no major breaches occur. The Dan River spill occurred when a stormwater pipe that ran under two ash ponds in Eden ruptured.
On Tuesday, DENR ordered Duke to immediately plug a second leaking pipe at the shuttered Eden plant that appeared to be leaking more coal ash into the Dan River. State officials said Wednesday that 90 percent of the flow from the pipe had been stopped.
The Sierra Club called the news conference "unusual" and said DENR officials offered "seemingly inconsistent and incomplete answers" to questions about ash ponds and the Dan River spill.
"Noticeably lacking in today’s press conference was any stated commitment by the administration to remove coal ash from unlined lagoons next to our waterways," Cassie Gavin, state government relations director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. "If the McCrory administration feels it needs additional legislative authority to compel action, will the governor then propose a legislative solution?”